MONTENEGRO: The Mini-Series. Part 3: This is why we travel

On Saturday, we took the advice of a number of different friends and drove up the coast to Kotor, a port city that now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is in what is called the southern-most fjord in Europe, although according to the ever-faithful Wikipedia the site isn’t technically a fjord. The trip took us about 90 minutes through some beautiful, winding, but narrow roads along the shore and through the bayside villages.

Kotor was a major trading center and it contains numerous churches, palaces, and old homes. There also are a lot of stores but unlike those in Budva, they do not overwhelm the rest of the buildings; in fact, there are still a number of residents in the city, so there actually is some “neighborhood-serving retail.”

The highlight of the visit was the walk up the side of the mountain to see the fortress of St. Giovanni and the Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation perched half-way up. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, mostly because I’m feeling a bit lazy and don’t want to do any further research. If you want the history, you can look it up here or here. The rest of our photos are in an album.

Here are some impossibly picturesque views into the fjord, including some churches on islands and the tower of a town jutting into the bay.

The façade of a still-occupied residence in the main square; another public square; an Orthodox church whose name I can’t find, and its interior.

Various alleys and buildings in Kotor on the way to the back of the city, where the path leads up to the fortress.

These photos show the fortress of St. Giovanni and the Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation. The fortress, 280 meters above the town, was originally built during the Illyrian times, and reconstructed first by the Byzantine emperor Justinianius in the 6th century AD and then again by the Venetians in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Venetians also built the ramparts, and they were used even through WWII. These photos show the fortress and chapel from below (the chapel is in the lower left corner of the first photo); the view down the mountain from behind the chapel; the fortress with the Montenegrin flag; and the view of the fjord from the top of the mountain.

Ovine Assault Vehicles and Other Animal Behavior

On Wednesday night, Abby and I went to the weekly ex-pat dinner. This week’s dinner was being held at a restaurant behind the football stadium, near to the park and the Polytechnic, and about two city blocks away from the U.S. Embassy. Abby parked, and got out, opened the back door, and leaned in to get her purse. (I had already crossed the street.) As she straightened up out of the car, she saw a pack of wild animals round the corner and start heading straight toward her. I turned around too as I heard the pounding of feet along the sidewalk toward the car. It took a few seconds to comprehend what we were seeing:

Fortunately, the herd ran right past Abby. Or perhaps unfortunately: had they stopped, she might have been able to pinch some wool.

Meanwhile, activity continues in the Park. The dogs seems to have carved out territories for themselves. I see the puppies less often at the lake now; it seems to have been taken over mostly by adult males who are very jealous of the area. Abby had been with Cooper a few days ago and had him off the leash, and as she rounded the lake the pack bore down on Cooper and chased him into a long-abandoned, perfectly foul bathroom facility.

Abby had her umbrella so she was able to threaten the pack into retreating, but it took her a while to coax Cooper out, and now he’s nervous until we’ve passed that stretch of the park. (We did walk by there today, with Cooper on the leash. The dogs seemed content to watch us warily, although two of them were mostly intent on humping each other, switching from top to bottom – homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom.) Meanwhile, some females rule the area between two of the cafes in the park; one of them was the dog that bit Cooper some weeks back when he ran into their territory. We also hear the sounds of other dogs barking and snarling – followed by the sound of some other dog yelping – from another area that we haven’t walked through yet.

Clio ignoring Cooper

Scruffy, Clio and Cooper playing

Despite the territoriality, there are plenty of “floaters” in the park, and we still have our friends. Today we played with Clio, a golden lab-mix female on whom Cooper practiced some of his moves, and then Scruffy came bounding over, barrelled into me, and joined the fray. Scruffy and Clio are both very socialized, and Scruffy would follow me to the car if I let him; in fact, both Clio and Scruffy are better at following me off the leash than Cooper is. If I were a little less practical, we’d have six dogs right now.

Speaking of animal behavior, how about those Albanian drivers? (Ba-da-bing!) Seriously, the majority of Albanians on the road have only a rudimentary appreciation of road rules, and for a sizeable minority traffic lights are purely decorative. We have all the American standards over here – the classic “left-turn-from-the-right-lane” maneuver, the “driving-at-night-with-no-lights-on” challenge, and the “I’m-entering-moving-traffic-without-looking” dash, plus a level of red-light running that would shame the worst D.C. driver. However, I’ve also seen some local variations that leave me almost speechless. (Abby wishes they would leave me actually speechless, just so I’d shut up while I’m driving her to work.)

For example, I’ve seen whole lines of cars take over a lane on the other side of a solid white line – not just to pass a standing vehicle, but to continue up the entire road. I saw one driver swerve into the opposite lane of traffic and pass six cars waiting to go through a traffic light, and then run through the intersection after the light has changed to red. And I’ve watched policemen coolly ignore moving violations that would result in crucifixion in the U.S.

So, as Lenin asked famously, what is to be done? I digress for a moment to describe what I did last night. I went to an exhibition hall in the National History Museum and, with five other people, judged a competition of 91 childrens’ drawings. The competition was the culmination of an educational program for third-graders called “Friends of Water”, in which the Water Supply and Sewerage Association of Albania created a curriculum about water conservation and protection that was taught across the country; the students then took part in local drawing competitions on the theme, and the winners’ drawings were collected in Tirana for the final judging and exhibition. I was talking with one of the program directors, an Albanian-American guy from Worcester, MA, and I suggested that the local car insurance companies should run a similar program to teach kids about safe driving and, in Abby’s words, to “shame their parents” into driving responsibly. Since I know the head of the local chamber of commerce, this may become my next project. At least I’ll be doing something other than complaining every morning.

As for the competition itself, I thought it was pretty cute, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. The pictures variously depict the water cycle, the ways that water gets into people’s houses, declarations that water equals life, and exhortations to not waste water.

There were many introductory speeches before the ribbon-cutting.

The participants awaited the results with excitement.

Some of the works were typical of third-graders – busy, colorful, and occasionally incomprehensible.

Even though I couldn’t quite understand this one – something about a drop of water’s journey through the plumbing – the guy’s expression is marvelous. It’d make a great plush toy.

This artist took a decidedly minimalist approach, utilizing only half the canvas.

This one, on the other hand, went for a more complex layout. It talks about not using drinking water to wash the car and not leaving the tap on.

I particularly liked this one. It reminded me of a Keith Haring or the Woodstock poster.

We all thought this one was especially good for a nine-year-old artist. It says that without water, there is no life.

This one, however, bore the mark of a more “mature” hand, probably Dad’s. The material looks like gouache, which most nine-year-olds can’t even spell. Because of our suspicions, it only won on the second round of voting.

MONTENEGRO: The Mini-Series. Part 2: Those three hours weren’t such a loss

When we crossed the border, the landscape didn’t suddenly change in a Kansas-to-Oz manner, but we did notice some differences as we moved northward. We drove through landscaped fields, neatly mowed and divided by low stone walls in a manner that reminded Abby of Virginia. The towns seemed a bit grimy, but less than they would be in Albania; however, it was after we hit the coastline that the difference became apparent. The Montenegran Riviera is stunning. We were high up on the mountain, looking down onto a gleaming blue sea. Everything just seemed clean, even the sides of the roads.

The Catholic presence is obvious on the coast; for example, we saw a small church perched on the rocks about 200 meters out from the coast. Later, we passed the Sveti Stefan, an impossibly picturesque fishing village dating from the 15th century which, we later learned, was closed in the post-season. According to Wikipedia, the last residents were evicted in the 1950s and the entire town was transformed into a luxury resort. We had arrived a few weeks after the tourist season had ended, so the gates were locked. (It generally proved to be the situation, as anywhere else, that the Montenegran coast is expensive and crowded during the tourist season, and much less expensive, but quiet almost to the point of desertion, afterward.) We came back after we checked into our hotel; here are a few of the scores of pictures we took.

Abby took most of these; I’m posting the rest to a Flickr photo album. Click here.

After wandering around the area, we drove into Budva to find the Stari Grad – the Old Town. On the way, we saw an amazing rainbow which we continued to photograph for the rest of the afternoon. (See Flickr for the photos.) We drove for a while, since the Old Town didn’t have very good signage, but we finally found it.

Budva was an Illyrian city which became part of the Roman, Byzantine and then Venetian empires. The Old Town carries many of the markings of Venetian architecture, but nowadays it also carries the mark of commercialization: most of the main alleys are loaded with souvenier shops, pizza cafes, and clothing stores. In all, it simply wasn’t very interesting. The rest of the photos are in the photo album.

After we cruised the alleys, we had dinner, which was probably most notable for the complimentary after-dinner drinks. Mine was a version of raki that could strip paint; Abby’s tasted like fermented marshmallow circus peanuts. With those flavors leadening our taste buds, we went home and watched Shaft on cable television. (No joke.) In the end, I realized that we hadn’t really lost time even with the three hour delay in leaving Tirana; there just isn’t that much to do in Budva and Sveti Stefan off season.

Another wedding

We attended the wedding feast of one of Abby’s staff today. It was flattering to be invited, of course, and there’s no question that the Albanians know how to throw a party. Everyone was very welcoming and the food never stopped. It was a mix of traditional Albanian warmth and American styling, in a New Jersey kind of way.

The feast was held a few miles outside Tirana. It was the groom’s party – the bride’s side had celebrated the night before somewhere else. (This is how they do it, traditionally I suppose so that the couple could celebrate in each of their own villages.) We arrived and gathered outside the restaurant until the groom’s parents arrived, and then went in. What immediately met our eyes were long tables already laden with plates of cold meats and cheeses, olives and yogurt, tomatoes and cucumbers; the bottles of water, beer and soda competing for space with the food; and the bunting. The food looked great, but with the bright lighting, the rows of tables covered with 1.5 liter plastic bottles, the bunting, and the artificial flowers (in water), it put Abby and me both in mind of a V.F.W. hall.

We sat down, and started to drink and chat with some of the guests, but mostly with the other American couple from Abby’s office that was there, and then the bride and groom entered, looking lovely as brides and grooms do, to recorded fanfare. After they were escorted to their table, we began to eat, and almost immediately after that, the music began: a DJ playing songs off a laptop. Except playing wasn’t the right word – blaring is the right word. It’s hard enough to understand Albanian when you can hear it; the volume made trying to converse with any of the Albanian guests pointless. (We did a lot of smiling and wordless toasting, however, which was fine with everyone.)

After the cold plate, they served tavë dheu, which I’ve described in an earlier blog entry, except that this time it was all meat, as far as we could tell. The music continued, sometimes vaguely Arabic-sounding, other times a heavily-synthesized Balkan-polka hybrid, with some of the most eardrum-shredding pitches I’ve ever heard – and I’ve sat through a lot of Hexagon rehearsals. There were two 50’s rock-‘n’-roll tunes, however, so Abby and I did a little swing dancing.

We then sat down to yet a third plate of meat: qofte, a usually grilled patty of ground meat that for some reason was fried instead, and another piece of cold beef. (The plates of salad that were also on the table went largely untouched.) After that, it was back to the dance floor for traditional circle-dancing, in which we wound through the tables, holding each others’ hands up and doing a modified grape-vine step. Think of a hora, Greek folk-dancing, or a local version of Riverdance. Then it was time for plate four – veal escallope.

We were sitting back after this, fairly well stuffed on meat, (and me personally on my second raki), when the bride and groom went out dancing to more of the “Bolka” as I started calling it. The tradition is for the guests to give the couple envelops stuffed with cash, but the bride’s family also had made necklaces out of 1,000 lekë notes and draped them around the bride and groom, so they were out there festooned with cash. The bride even had a number of 1,000 lekë notes stuffed into the front of her dress. I don’t know who stuffed them there – probably female relatives – but nonetheless, the first thought that came to my mind was an inappropriate comparison to some of the clubs on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. I won’t provide the actual quote here, but Abby said that it’s lines like that that make her insist that I keep this blog limited to invited readers.

At this point we were ready for the cake, and they came out with more plates with pastry on them. But it was not cake: it was a piece of byrek accompanied by even more meat. The music, still on at ear-ringing levels, suddenly jumped from Bolka to K.T. Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and then Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, and from there to the Disco Bunny version of 50’s rock-‘n’-roll hits (Kids: ask your parents). It was time to go.

But still, if I may set aside my snide-for-its-own-sake commentary, I have to say not only did we have a good time, but everyone was having fun, and that Albanian hospitality is genuine and honest. A friend has asked me how life is in the “third world” these days, and the most thought-provoking thing about living in Albania at the moment is the electricity: i.e., we have it because we have a generator, and many of our Albanian neighbors and friends don’t. The weather has turned to fall, and if Abby and I are cold at night, then, whether the electrical grid is up or not, we can turn our heaters on at the flick of a switch; a lot of people can’t, no matter how cold it gets. It’s a sad situation. So in the face of the daily indignities that the locals face, their ability to be generous to friend and stranger alike – as they were today – gives you something to think about.

Akoma Nuk Do Të Punoj

I have received, and turned down, my first job offer. The position was a 30-day consultancy with the U.N. Development Program’s Security Sector Reform project, to write a “how-to” manual on how to form and run a Community Problem Solving Group. A CPSG is a citizens’ group that works with its local police force to identify and solve problems. These groups are the building blocks of community policing.

Since I had worked on a community policing project when I was with Booz-Allen, I was interested in the job, until I learned that the 30-day project had to be done in exactly 30 days, from 23 October through to 23 November. When I asked for clarification on this point, the project leader told me “Well, if you work, say, 10 hours on Fridays, you could take a Sunday off.” And there’d be no room for a five-day trip to Egypt in the middle of it, as we have planned. I declined.

MONTENEGRO: The Mini-Series. Part 1: Will they make it?

Friday the 12th was Big Bajram, the last day of Ramadan, and Abby’s office was closed, so we decided to go to Montenegro for the long weekend. Because our car has a mylar back windscreen and gaps around the rear door, we decided to rent a car, and Friday morning we went to the local Avis, which is located in the Hotel Rognor. The office was closed because it was Big Bajram, the last day of Ramadan. However, the hotel clerk called the Avis assistant manager, and she came within 10 minutes and agreed to rent us a car. However, we’d need to have a notarized letter stating that we weren’t taking the car out of the country without Avis’ permission. (Apparently, a rental contract isn’t enough.) An obstacle, but within a few minutes the Assistant Manager found a notary who could come in – “within hour and a half or so.” At this point, it was 9.00 AM and we’d already been waiting for an hour. Mylar be damned, we decided to take our own car.

We then needed to get a short-term international drivers’ insurance policy. The “green card” is available at any Western Union office, so we zipped down to the Western Union office at the corner of the entrance to our neighborhood – but it was closed because it was Big Bajram. We then drove back uptown to the Western Union office by the Embassy, which was open. However, their internet connection was down, so they couldn’t sell us the policy. We then went to the third Western Union office down the street, which also was open. However, their electricity was out and their generator was locked in the store next door for safe-keeping.

The clerk told us that we probably could buy insurance at the border, but that if we waited ten minutes, the storekeeper next door would come in, they could get their generator, and sell us the policy. Figuring that we’d want to have this bird in the hand, we agreed to wait, but while we were waiting for the store to open, we received a telephone call that somehow our garage door gate had opened electronically on its own, and we needed to come home to close it with the clicker. Abby went home while I waited for the generator to arrive, and I was still waiting when she came back. It was now well after 10.00 AM.

Finally, the storekeeper arrived, the Western Union guys hooked up their generator, and turned on their computer. It was then that they learned that the insurance company had closed for the holiday and had shut down its server, so they couldn’t sell us a green card. At this point it was 11.00 AM and I was ready to call it quits. However, Abby was sensible and drove us up to the border where, without any trouble whatsoever, we bought our policy and crossed the border.

Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, and Maybe Work




I’ve been taking Cooper to the Park every morning after I drop Abby off at work. (The car is drivable, but very air-conditioned right now because of the accident.) I’ve been able to observe dog pack dynamics, and it’s quite interesting. We’ve also been adopted by some of the park dogs and shunned by others. The “dog friends” include Gimpy, as I named him because he limps when he runs. Then we met Rōlli, a puppy whose sister is owned by a friend of ours; Abby named her Rōlli because she used to roll over submissively when she started to play, but who now outweighs Cooper and knows it. She is comfortable enough with us that she will come over to Cooper to play, unless the leader of her pack is around. Neither the alpha dog nor the puppies’ mother, who seems to be the beta dog, will tolerate Cooper. The alpha barks at him and the beta has snapped at him a few times when he gets too close.

Finally we have Scruffy, who occasionally hangs with the pack and who came over to me last week when I called for Cooper. I said hello and he jumped up on me to have his ears scratched. My guess is that he had been domesticated at one point and then let go; either that, or he’s the most preternaturally friendly wild dog in Tirana. (I haven’t included a photo of Mangy, who no one will play with for the obvious reason.) I’m very tempted to adopt Scruffy after we come back from Egypt next month – Abby has a conference, I’m going to look at pyramid – except that one dog hogging the bed or trying to steal food off the table already constitutes a lot of dogs. As each of you come to visit us in Albania, be prepared to go home with a complimentary dog.

The other complicating factor is that work possibilities loom. I’ve been short-listed for a one-month local consultant position with the U.N. Development Program; the interview is tomorrow. I also expect to meet with the Chief of Party for a USAID-funded local governance contract after he arrives in Tirana next week. And the duties with the Special Friends of the National Gallery continue. I seem to have been drafted into the position of vice-chair, membership, and secretary. We had our first event of the season last night – a tasting of Albanian wines in one of the Gallery’s exhibit halls, complete with chamber music (if you can call renditions of “Making Whoopie” and “O Solo Mio” played on strings “chamber music”) and raised over $400 for the Gallery as well as nearly $500 for ourselves. I’m hoping to open a second career in arts development, but that’s a bit of a way off …

P.S. Cooper now has lost his milk teeth and has real dog teeth, which are stronger but hurt less when he chews your arm to get you to start playing – which he has been doing to me for about two hours now while I’m trying to blog and do Gallery business. He’s also the worst ball-fetcher ever. At least Bill Buckner saw the ball go between his legs; Cooper doesn’t see it if it’s even three inches from his nose.

What It’s Like (Part 2)

I’ve just taken Cooper for a walk along the Lana River. I decided to not take a video of the traffic, to save you the angry car horns, the rumble of the trucks, and the screeching policemen’s whistles. Instead, here’s a picture of mud. It has rained a lot in the last few days, and the unpaved back roads have been turned into long swaths of slippery mud. Even the paved streets have a patina of mud from all the dust. If you come during the fall, bring your wellies.